In “The ‘Boozing-Ken’ Once More,” the one hundred and eighteenth chapter of G. W. M. Reynolds’s immensely long The Mysteries of London, Swiggs, who once owned a pub, horrifies his listeners when he tells them all the ways brewers, vinyards, and barkeeps dilute, pollute, and contaminate alcoholic drink. Granted, the radical authors himself became a teetotaler, so much of what Swiggs relates may be exaggerated, but research by recent scholars, such as Anthony Wohl, suggest he is telling the truth. Emphasis added in waht follows.

Let us begin with the beer. In the first place the brewer adulterates it, to save his malt and hops; and then the publican adulterates it, to increase its quantity. His business is to make one butt of beer into two — aye, and sometimes three. Ha! ha! Now, how do you think he does it? He first deluges it with water: then, of course, it's so weak and flat that no one could possibly drink it. It wants alcohol, or spirit in it; it wants the bitter flavour; it wants pungency; it wants age; and it wants froth. All these are supplied by means of adulteration. Cocculus indicus, henbane, opium, and Bohemian rosemary are used instead of alcohol: these are all poisons; and the Bohemian rosemary is of so deadly a nature, that a small sprig produces a raving intoxication. Ha! ha! that's good so far! Then aloes, quassia, wormwood, and gentian supply the place of hops, and give bitterness to the hell-broth. Ginger, cassia-buds, and capsicum, produce pungency. Treacle, tobacco-juice, and burnt sugar give it colour. Oil of vitriol not only makes it transparent, but also imparts to it the taste of age; so that a butt so doctored immediately seems to be two years old. I needn't tell you what sort of a poison oil of vitriol is: I don't want to suggest the means of suicide—ha! ha! But when the brew has gone so far, it wants the heading—that froth, you know, which you all fancy to be a proof of good beer. Alum, copperas, and salt of tartar will raise you as nice a heading as ever you'd wish to dip your lips in."

The Rat’s Castle, the tavern where Swigg explains how beer and other drink is adulterated. Click on image to enlarge it.

"You don't mean to say all that's true, Swiggs?" exclaimed the Buffer; "for though I ain't partickler, I don't think I shall ever like porter again."

"True!" ejaculated the old man, contemptuously: "it's as true as you're sitting there! But there's a dozen other ingredients that go into the stuff you lap up so pleasantly, and pay for as beer. What do you think of extract of poppies, coriander, nux vomica, black extract, Leghorn juice, and bitter beans? But all these names are Greek to you. They ain't to the publicans, though—ha! ha! Why half the poor people that go to lunatic asylums, are sent there by the poison called beer."

"What have you got to say agin blue ruin, old feller?" demanded a Knacker, who was regaling himself with a glass of gin-and-water.

"Blue ruin — gin!" cried the old man. "Ah! I can tell you something about that too. Oil of vitriol is the chief ingredient: it has the pungency and smell of gin. When you take the cork out of a bottle of pure gin, it will never make your eyes water: but the oil of vitriol will. Ha! ha! there's a test for you. Try it! Oil of turpentine, sulphuric æther, and oil of almonds are used to conceal the vitriol in the made-up gin. What is called Fine Cordial Gin is the most adulterated of all: it is concocted expressly for dram-drinkers—ha! ha!"

"Rum, I should think, is the best of all the spirits," said the Buffer.

"Because you like it best, perhaps?" exclaimed the old man. "Ha! ha! you don't know that the Fine Jamaica Rum is nothing else but the vile low-priced Leeward Island rum, which is in itself a stomach-burning fire-water of the deadliest quality, and which is mixed by the publican with cherry-laurel water and devil."

"What's devil?" asked the Knacker.

"Aye, what is it, indeed? It's nothing but chili pods infused in oil of vitriol—that's all! But now for Best Cognac Brandy," continued the old man. "Do you think the brandy sold under that name ever saw France—ever crossed the sea? Not it! Aqua ammonia, saffron, mace, extract of almond cake, cherry-laurel water, devil, terra japonica, and spirits of nitre, make up the brandy when the British spirit has been well deluged with water. That's your brandy! Ha! ha!"

"What a precious old sinner you must be, Swiggs," said one of the company, "if you used to make up such poisons as you're now talking about."

"Dare say I was—dare say I was," observed the old man, composedly. "Nearly every publican does the same, I tell you. Those who don't, go into the Gazette—that's all. Ha! ha! But if the poor are cheated and poisoned in that way, how do you think the middle classes and rich ones are served! Shall I tell you any thing about wine—eh?"

"Yes — do," cried several voices. "Let's hear how the swell cove is served out."

"Well, I'll tell you that too," continued the old man. "There's hundreds of Wine-Guides that contain instructions for the merchants, and vintners, and publicans. Take a bottle of cheap Port wine, and get a chemist to analyse it: he'll tell you it contains three ounces of spirits of wine, fourteen ounces of cyder, one ounce and a half of sugar, two scruples of alum, one scruple of tartaric acid, and four ounces of strong decoction of logwood. That's the way I used to make my Port wine. Not a drop—not a single drop of the juice of the grape. Ha! ha! Families bought it wholesale—three-and-sixpence the bottle—rank poison! Ha! ha! Nearly all fictitious wines possess too high a colour—particularly sherry: the way to make such wine pale is to put a quart of warm sheep's blood in the butt, and, when it's quite fine, to draw it off. I always did that—but I didn't tell the families so, though! Which do you think is the greatest cheat of all the cheap wines?—the Cape. The publicans sell it at eighteen-pence and two shillings. Why—it's nothing more than the drippings from the casks, the filterings of the lees, and all the spoiled white wines that happen to be in the cellar, mixed together with rum-cowe and cyder, and fined with sheep's blood."

"I'm glad to hear the rich is humbugged as well as the poor," observed the Knacker: "that's a consolation, at any rate."

"So it is," said a cat's-meat man, nodding his head approvingly.

"Humbugged!" ejaculated Swiggs, triumphantly: "I b'lieve you! I'll tell you how two-thirds of all the Port wine drunk in the United Kingdom is made:—Take four gallons of cyder, two quarts of the juice of red beet-root, two quarts of brandy, four ounces of logwood, half a pound of bruised rhatany root, and one ounce of alum: first infuse the logwood and rhatany root in the brandy and a gallon of the cyder for ten days; then strain off the liquor and mix all the other ingredients with it; put it into a cask, keep it for a month, and it will be fit to bottle. Not a drop of grape-juice there. Ha! ha! If the colour isn't quite right, an infusion of raspings of red sandars wood in spirits of wine will soon give it a beautiful red complexion. But then the bees'-wing. Ha! the bees'-wing—eh! A saturated solution of cream of tartar, coloured with Brazil-wood or cochineal, will give the best crust and bees'-wing you can imagine. There's for you! Port made in a month or six weeks can be passed off for wine ten or a dozen years old. The corks can easily be stained to indicate age—and who's to discover the cheat? Nobody but the chemist—ha! ha!"

"Well, I've learnt someot to-night," said the Knacker.

"Learnt something! You know nothing about it yet," cried the old man, who was on his favourite topic. "You don't know what poison—rank poison—there is in all these cheap wines;—aye, and in the dear ones too, for that matter. Sugar of lead is a chief ingredient! I needn't tell you that sugar of lead is a deadly poison: any fool knows that. Sal enixum and slaked lime are used to clear muddy wine; and litharge gives a sweet taste to wines that are too acid. Bitter almonds imparts to port a nutty flavour; cherry-laurel water gives it a bouquet; and tincture of raisin seeds endows it with a grapy taste—which it hasn't got and can't have otherwise.

Related material


Reynolds, George W. M. The Mysteries of London. vol 2. Project Gutenberg EBook #51294. Produced by Chuck Greif and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. Web. 27 September 2016.

Last modified 27 September 2016